Guerrilla Marketing: Start-up EVs are Game Changers

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 15, 2010

Coda cars are coming to Enterprise Rent-a-Cars near you. (Coda Automotive photo)Electric cars are game changers, no doubt about it. And one thing they're going to change is the way we shop for and buy cars. How do I mean that? How about cars for sale in shopping malls and big-box retailers? How about people renting EVs, not to go anywhere but to see what they're like? What about valets who will fly out to you and hold your hand through the getting-acquainted stage?

And that's just the beginning. Think of how the calls to Car Talk are going to change. These cars make practically no noise, "funny" or otherwise. But they'll definitely go haywire now and then, so there'll still be plenty to talk about on the air.

No doubt you've already seen ads for the Chevrolet Volt (the "range extender," whose gas engine acts as a generator) and Nissan Leaf battery car. This Leaf ad takes a while to get going, but it makes its point. And I dig the polar bear:

Don't worry about GM and Nissan: They've got dealer networks and big marketing budgets. But the little guys, the start-ups--Coda Automotive, Fisker, Tesla, Wheego and others--they need to do guerrilla marketing, and we're beginning to see it emerge.

Kevin Czinger, President and CEO of Coda, told me this week that its electric car, which will be on the market in a few months will be sold initially in a pair of malls in California (the only place the car will be sold initially). In one case, the car will be sitting in a mall storefront, right next to the Apple store. In the other, no car is needed because the site is 50 feet from a parking lot where the company will have cars, chargers and employees ready to give test drives.

There's more. "We're having serious discussions with people who are national retailers about having a Coda store within a store." How would that work? Easy. Best Buy, for instance, is already selling the Brammo electric motorcycle, and spokeswoman Kelly Groehler tells me that the pilot program is going well. She declined to answer my impertinent questions about Best Buy selling EVs, but the company is seriously plugging in.

Earlier this week, Best Buy announced that it is teaming with major charging company ECOtality to provide EV charging at 12 of its West Coast stores. That number is likely to grow quickly. The company's Geek Squad is operating a fleet of four Mitsubishi I-MiEV cars on customer service missions, so they'll charge alongside customer cars. Best Buy's Rick Rommel told me that the company sees EVs as an extension of the appliances it sells--they could be just another category, with an aisle of their own.

ECOtality's Colin Read pointed out that the Geek Squad is already making house calls, so it's not a stretch for it to be selling the company's Blink chargers and, eventually, cars.

Coda will also use other work-arounds in place of traditional dealerships. It will have Coda "valet service" linking customers to "a world-class network of authorized service providers and Coda-trained technicians." It's establishing six geographically spaced service centers around California, and will also offer service at 20 Firestone Complete Auto Care stores.

And Coda will also, like Nissan, have a rental agreement: This week, it inked a deal with Enterprise Rent-a-Car to put 100 sedans at Enterprise locations. Enterprise will also have EV charging. The rental company also has a larger deal to put 500 Leafs into play. My guess is that many tire-kickers will be renting cars not to drive to grandma's house, but to take 'em around the block.

has some of the same things in mind. CEO Mike McQuary told me Wednesday that the company, which makes a small Smart-sized battery vehicle that started life in China but will be finished as an EV in Ontario, California, probably won't go the big-box route.

The Wheego LiFe will come with its own personal attendant. (Wheego photo)"I don't see us walking down that path," he said. "If you think of the Wheego as an automobile, we could take this route. But we're selling a service, with a lot of education, communications and hand-holding. The smart, tech-savvy early adopters will want to troubleshoot for you, and they will become evangelists."
McQuary has 24 dealers lined up, including those whose primary purpose is selling Fords, Chryslers and Subarus. More will be announced when the Wheego LiFe debuts at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

And he won't be confined to California: He's going national, and he sees a lot of opportunity in the markets all over the U.S. that won't be served by the Volt and Leaf for at least a year. "We'll have the run of the rest of the country," he said. And like Coda, Wheego will be offering a unique form of valet service: Buy a Wheego Life, and the company will fly a representative to you. "We'll spend a day out there with the new owners when the cars are delivered, walking them through the process. It's like buying a new computer," said the former Mindspring executive.

The Internet is also a major marketing tool for EV companies, and I spent an afternoon with Coda marketing director Michael Jackson (they call him Mike) as he outlined how they'll reach people through that medium. Coda thinks its website can get people motivated, but McQ isn't so sure. "For the most part, people will want to see the cars, touch them and test drive them," he said. And maybe they'll be doing that at malls, rental car parking lots and big-box stores.

This could be big. "The entire distribution platform for automobiles is going to be rethought," says Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of battery maker Ener1 (which supplies Think and Volvo). "After all, how many people report a pleasurable experience going to the dealership? EVs are user friendly, they're game changers and they're disruptive." In a good way, of course.

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